Monday, January 31, 2011

Why a Democratic Egypt must Dismantle its Military Establishment

Two contested frames are now emerging from the "chaos" in Egypt. Either the popular revolution has created chaos, including looting and the escape of inmates from from prisons, or the government has constructed an image of chaos, so that it's turn to emergency powers would be justified and necessary.

It is telling, and not a little sad, that both sides are courting the military - a fundamental and embedded institution of Egyptian life and politics. On the one hand, state television in Egypt depicted President Hosni Mubarak visiting an army operations center, showing that he remains the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. On the other, we hear numerous reports that the troops are apparently one with the demonstrators, refusing to enforce the state's curfew. Mohamed ElBaradei, for his part, told ABC that "the first step is that he (Mubarak) has to go. The second step is a government of national salvation, in coordination with the army."

Aye, there's the rub. When the balance of power hangs on the approval of the military, the prospect for democratic consolidation is slim. The problem is that the military is not exactly one with the people because it is not one. The older generals are wary of ElBaradei, someone who's enjoyed too much Western support. Others are afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation's largest opposition party with the ultimate goal of setting up an Islamic theocracy, would gain too strong a voice in a new coalition government.

Yet the most unfortunate thing about the Egyptian military is not that it's support is contingent but that it is needed at all. Militaries in authoritarian regimes are the reason why most do not possess the vibrant civil societies equal to the task of self-governance. When jobs and resources are funneled to one interest group at the expense of all others, a state arises within a state. Presidents come and go. Mubarak will too. But the cycle of revolutions and coup d'états continue as long as the military is here to stay.

The military has been a fundamental part of Egyptian political life at least since the revolution of 1952, when Generals Muhammad Naguib, Gamal Nasser and the Free Officers overthrew Egypt's constitutional monarchy. The Revolutionary Command Council declared the 1923 Constitution defunct and in next year, it banned all political parties. Blood, violence, and military rule accompanied Egypt's subsequent history as they were present at her founding. Indeed, Egypt has lived under a state of emergency for most of its history since its revolution. After Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, martial law was declared and parliament has voted consistently every three years to renew the emergency laws to the present day.

How many Generals in the history of the world walked away from power when the power was his to take? Not Muhammad Naguib, not Gamal Nasser, not Anwar Sadat, not Hosni Mubarak, and probably not Omar Suleiman, newly appointed Vice-President of Egypt. When the history of modern Egypt reads like military history, then democracy has gone sadly missing. So yes, the military might be sympathetic to the popular demonstrators at Liberation Square, but we should not be fooled that the military is the solution to today’s troubles. That everyone agrees that it must be part of the solution tells us that it is the problem itself. The question is not whether the United States should support Mubarak or ElBaradei, but how we can assist a leader who can stand up to the entrenched interests to guide Egypt out of the abyss of martial rule.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A GOP Front-runner Emerges

The Republican party has traditionally been a more ordered, hierarchical organization, one in which the norm of waiting for one's turn has been entrenched through the decades. When there is no consensus on the available candidates in the field, the runner-up to the last nomination contest becomes, by default, the front-runner. Today, Palin, Pawlenty, Thune, Huckabee, Gingerich, and Santorum are all names being mentioned. Yet no name stands out the way Mitt Romney's does.

This weekend, Romney topped a straw poll of New Hampshire Republican Party Committee members for the party's nomination. He was the runner-up in 2008's straw poll in New Hampshire, and won 32 percent of the actual primary vote, just behind John McCain's 37 percent. Now, the poll may not tell us much because New Hampshire is a Romney stronghold because he is from neighboring Massachusetts and owns a home in the state. But history and the Republican primary calendar appear to be moving in Romney's favor.

This is because by the time the South begins to vote to give victories to Romney's rivals, he would had three chances to set up a delegate-grabbing momentum. Romney is the frontrunner to beat in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on or around February 14, 2012. On February 18, he is likely to win again in the Nevada caucuses because of his Mormon base there. On February 28, Michigan, where Romney was born and remains a favorite son, holds its primary. As we know of the law of momentum in primary contests, the early bird catches the nomination. Fortunes' arrows are certainly unpredictable, but she has bequeathed to Romney three shots toward the Republican nomination in the first two weeks of the primary cycle in 2012.

The Tea Party movement is inadvertently helping Romney out too. While everyone else is actively courting the Tea Party, Romney isn't (and some say, he couldn't even if he tried, because of his hand in healthcare reform as Governor of Massachusetts). This sets Romney apart to win the more moderate Republicans voting in states like New Hampshire, which happens to have a semi-open primary, which means Independents who are not registered with either party can vote in the Republican primary. Romney's less than cosy relationship with the Tea Party may actually help him because while Palin and Huckabee et al split the Tea Party vote, Romney would be on his way to a delegate lead.

Republican donors appear to be concurring. Almost every economic index other than unemployment is likely to favor an Obama re-election in 2012, so the Republican party could do well to put someone with Romney's credentials as a former businessman and CEO at the top of their ticket. With 9/11 a decade behind us (the only reason why Rudy Giuliani was the front-runner at this time in the 2008 cycle), American politics will likely regress to the mean so that 2012, like 2010, will be about the economy. Accordingly, Romney's PAC (Free and Strong America) has raised more money than that of any other contender, including Sarah Palin, whose PAC raised $5.4 million in 2010, compared to Romney's $8.8 million. Palin gets the crowds out, but Romney gets their checkbooks out. Big difference; and we aren't even yet talking about Romney's personal wealth.

Obama's approval numbers have gone up for now. But one thing he has always been weak on - and watch him try to address this weakness on Tuesday's State of the Union address - is that likeable as he appears to be, he is also perceived to be an unrepentant, red-inked, tax-and-spend budget dove. Wall Street doesn't trust him, but they sure like Mitt Romney. The Republican establishment understands that what matters for the selection of their nominee is not ideological purity, but someone best positioned to take on Obama's Achilles' heel. Unless conditions on the ground change, the money is on Romney.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Conservative Anger and Liberal Condescension

The vitriol that liberals and conservatives perceive in each other is only the symptom of a larger cause. There is something rooted in the two ideologies that generates anger and condescension respectively, and that is why a simple call by the President for participants to be more civil will find few adherents.

Liberals are thinking, what is it about conservatism that it can produce its own antithesis, radicalism? Whether these be conservatives of the anti-government variety, such as Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bomber) or Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), or conservatives of the anti-abortion variety such as Clayton Waagner, Eric Rudolph, or the Army of God -- all conducted terrorism to preserve a way of life.

One of the deepest paradoxes of American conservatism is that the preservation of the past takes effort. As William F. Buckley put it, conservatives "stand athwart history, yelling Stop." As the Founder of modern American conservatism noted, the enemy is History itself, because History moves. Congressman Joe Wilson took Buckley's yelling advice to heart in 2009, when he blurted out "You lie!" to the president when he was addressing the Congress in the chamber of the House. Yelling is a far cry from shooting. But the point is that conservatism on this side of the Atlantic wasn't exactly born a phlegmatic creed.

Conservatism in America has always been about fighting back and taking back, articulated with a healthy dose of bravado and second amendment rhetoric. Sarah Palin understands this and that is why her crowds cheer her on. People like her because she is feisty. But that has also worked against her. Palin just couldn't help herself but fight back when she was accused of inciting Jared Loughner into his shooting frenzy. Whereas the very liberal John Kerry thought he was above the fray and was slow to respond to the Swift Boat veterans' attacks against him, Sarah Palin is often too quick to respond to her attackers, and sometimes she does so without having considered her choice of words (like "blood libel.")

That is why House leaders about to stage a vote against Obamacare are about to traverse a dilemma-ridden path. To say what they want to say requires outrage and gusto, but when they do this they risk being accused of giving fodder to the would-be Jared Lee Loughners in their midst.

This is not to say that there isn't vitriol on the liberal side. But it is of an entirely different form. Whereas conservatives are apt to feel anger, liberals project condescension. Again, part of this is structural, because Progressivism of any variety has one thing on its side - History itself. Because in the long run, Progressives have change on their side, they only need to wait and the world as conservatives know it shall pass. This, in part, explains liberal condescension. Conservatives conserve because they want to insulate themselves against the vicissitudes of life and History’s inexorable movement. Progressives or liberals, on the other hand, embrace change because they feel it is inevitable.

This is why the liberal response to feisty conservatives is equally fraught with political landmines. Barack Obama learnt this the hard way in 2008 when he observed that for structurally unemployed Americans who lack the skills to acquire the jobs of the modern economy, "it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them." The liberal tendency to denigrate what is felt as righteous anger is exactly what cultivates more outrage.

A national conversation won’t just happen because of Barack Obama’s call for civility, and it certainly doesn’t begin with telling Republican leaders in the House to postpone their vote to repeal health-care reform. The president can take the lead by taking seriously rather than dismissing what is heartfelt in those who disagree with them. With less condescension, there will be less anger. Republican leaders, for their part, can reciprocate by considering that change isn’t always change for the worse. With less anger, there would be less condescension.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

John Boehner and Jared Loughner say: Read the US Constitution, but do they get it?

The new House rules require that bills be posted online for 72 hours before they come to the floor for a vote.

If this is a nod to the Tea Party movement, either the nodders are naive or the Tea Party movement has no clue what the Constitution really means.

One needs quite a lot more than a public reading of the US Constitution to unpack its meaning. For to understand the Constitution is not only know what it says, but how it works.

The more the House succeeds as a check against itself, the less it would be able to be a part the original checks and balances the Framers invented. The checks they envisioned were mostly inter-branch, not intra-branch.

Consider the various rules the House has now adopted to constrain its own powers. The Supreme Court doesn't do this. The President certainly does not. Whereas the House has mandated its members to post bills online for 72 hours before they are brought to the floor of the vote, presidents in the 20th century have been happy to conceal their actions behind the protective veil of "executive privilege." Whereas all bills and resolutions sent to the House now have to be accompanied by a statement of constitutional propriety, we are not likely to see a president voluntarily tie his/her hand like that. If anything, presidents purport to have independent authority to interpret the Constitution as they so please. Congress has now ceded its prerogative to do so.

The Tea Partiers do not appear to understand that power is a zero-sum game between the executive and legislative branches, and this is particularly ironic given that not a few of them are routing for the current president's political demise.

A weak legislative branch may beget a weak American state, and the latter, to be sure, is ultimately what the Tea Partiers want. But there is more than one branch able to the task of expanding the state. Tea Partiers might have missed the fact that whereas Republican legislators helped to expand the scope and size of the federal government during the Civil War and Reconstruction, in the 20th century, presidents have been the motive force behind the expansion of the American state. Think of Theodore Roosevelt and the civil service, Franklin Roosevelt and Social Security, Lyndon Johnson and Medicare. Crippling the legislature only makes it more susceptible to the executive whim. Betimes the executive exercises impulse control, but most of the time, presidents grow the state. Whether it pertains to the social security state or the military industrial complex, it's still the federal budget that has been exploding, and the emboldened executive of our times has quite a lot to do with it.

There are real consequences for our republic whenever someone one or one movement purports that someone else does not have the privilege of interpreting our Constitution. Quite often, they are simply ceding the interpretative power to someone else - either the President or less often, the Courts. Worse still is when the would-be constitutional purist reserves interpretation only for himself by purporting that the Constitution only needs to be read for its meaning to be manifest.

No, I am not talking about John Boehner, but Jared Loughner, the man taken into custody for the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who wrote on a Youtube video the following:

"The majority of citizens in the United States of America have never read the Constitution of the United States of America.

You don't have to accept the federalist laws.

Nonetheless, read the United States' of America's Constitution to apprehend all of the current treasonous laws.

You're literate, listener?"

By all means we should all read the Constitution. But reading the Bible never made any one God.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Here We Go Again

A new year, a new Congress. But, in all likelihood, we shall soon be witnessing the same politics.

2010 was a year of promises. Promises to return to common sense, to the American creed, to a simpler and better time before old and tired stratagems were tried ad nauseam on seemingly insurmountable problems. The world was black and white (or red and blue), politics was dice play, and there was a right answer and a wrong answer.

So was 2008.

2009 was a year of hubris, of dissension within political ranks, and ultimately of political learning. A year when the promisers went about trying to fulfill their promises, only to find out that what was presented to the electorate as new had already been tried before, so that what was cast as novel during the elections was quickly cast by the opposition as passé. Those who were so sure they were right just a year ago were humbled, and those who they had previously chastised coalesced into a powerful political movement.

2011 may pan out just like that.

Already, the Republican party is learning this year, as President Obama learnt in 2009, that it is easier to talk the talk during election year than to walk the talk in a post-election year. All political things in America are easier said than done. As Obama was under siege by his liberal base who wanted a public option for health-care reform in 2009, the Republican majority in Congress is already feeling pressure from the Tea Party movement to live up to its campaign promises. Two initial flashpoints can already be anticipated. First, Republicans pledged during the campaign to cut 100 billion from the federal domestic budget for this year (which would represent a 20 percent cut in non-security discretionary spending), but it is going to be very difficult for some Republican members (and some Republican Governors) to justify cuts in education, law enforcement, subsidies to business and farm groups. Second, the Tea Party is opposed to any further increase in the national debt limit, but it appears that doing so may be the only way to keep the government running.

Not even John Boehner’s House can stand if it were divided, but divided it will inevitably be when hard choices are placed before moderates and purists. It goes without saying that this puts Obama in a good position for 2012.

The alternating convulsions of American politics reveals something of the structural pathology of American politics, when politicians are beholden to ideologues – the ones with the energy and passion – are riled up enough to knock on doors, to donate to campaigns, and ultimately to turn out to vote – but these ideologues are often also the very people who cause their chosen leaders to veer off the political center and make their re-election less likely. And so far-left liberals (and not the Clintonites) carried Obama and Democrats into victory in 2008, but they were also the bane of the party in 2010. The Tea Party movement may well be a liability for Republicans in 2011, because as in 2008 and 2009, promises were made and an attempt to keep them has to be made, and sometimes this can mean political suicide.

It would appear that Democrats and Republicans are united in their commitment to repeat history, because we remain locked in a perpetual cycle of shouting matches where blocs of “engaged” citizens alternate turns to anoint new members into Washington’s ruling but unruly class. The Tea Party movement will be as instrumental to the rise of the Republican majority and its dissembling as the liberal base was for the ennobling and humbling of Democrats in the past political cycle.

So it is 2011, the year before we come back to the future in 2012.